As the day of the general election approaches, the clamour of political opinions has reached a new level of intensity. The Sun newspaper has intervened by announcing it is supporting the Labour Party and advising its readers to vote Labour. I do not usually read The Sun (not from any ideological objection, but because there simply isn’t time to read everything) but I have added The Sun to the newspapers I buy each day, intending to monitor it until the election.
Owned by News International, The Sun has a circulation of about three and a half million and is the biggest selling tabloid newspaper in the United Kingdom. Of all the daily newspapers in the United Kingdom it is one of the most professional and efficient. By professional I mean that it is (or has been until recently) absolutely focussed upon its readers and able to judge their mood and predict their responses.
Overwhelmingly positive in outlook, The Sun is consciously sensational, and seeks to entertain and flatter its readers. A salacious interest in celebrities and a strong emphasis upon sport characterises every issue. Competitions and other forms of reader interaction are a mainstay of the newspaper. The newspaper has also pioneered the treatment of ordinary members of the public as “celebrities” in their own right, co-opting millions of readers into a celebrity culture that is exciting, combustible and, for the participants, ultimately destructive.
Hostile to “foreign” influences internally, and bellicose towards foreign nations externally, the newspaper takes no notice of traditional journalistic campaigning, social issues, or the concept of truth for truth’s sake. There is often a dissonance between the headline and the bodycopy of the articles – this is because the Editorial team writes the headlines after the article has been submitted, always adopting a sensationalist slant. Frequently the Editorial team alters the text of articles arbitrarily, without consulting the journalist concerned (staff relations at the newspaper are characterised by a hire and fire ethos – there is no room for individual journalistic integrity).
Page 3 of The Sun has become an institution, and features photographs of naked or near naked young female models. This format has been refined recently so that the models have become a mouthpiece of the editorial column (literally a mouthpiece – a cartoon bubble emerges from the model’s mouth, carrying the text of an editorial comment). This innovation has been extraordinarily successful, allowing the (often outrageous) editorial comments to acquire the voluptuous gloss of an idealised persona (beautiful and intelligent our subconscious says, therefore they must be speaking the truth – for truth is beauty and beauty is truth, as Keats observed).
The politics of the newspaper (which external commentators object to vehemently) is largely composed of populist opinions that are very simplistic in tone, maintaining that all problems can be solved easily. There is no such thing as a Sun manifesto (in the way that The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph has a definite political programme that they wish to see implemented). The Sun doesn’t lead opinion, it reflects it. It gives articulation to the inarticulate and in this sense performs a democratic function. The Sun is not an evil influence (as some people like to make out) but it does have a weltanschuung that is disturbingly seductive. Reading it these past few days, I realise why I do not buy it regularly – one cannot touch pitch and not be defiled (as Anthony Trollope often wrote).
Readership of The Sun has traditionally been composed of working class men (an anachronistic description but accurate in that it is read by people who see themselves as working class even though they may, in socio-economic terms, be self-employed or affluent middle class professionals). However, this demographic group is aging, and the newspaper is struggling to attract younger readers (in particular, younger female readers). Therefore the decision by The Sun to support the Labour Party has to be watched with interest – it may be a very rare miscalculation by a newspaper that typically gets things right.
An integral part of The Sun’s traditional readers is “White Van Man”. This group is made up of men who, literally, drive white vans in their day-to-day jobs (typically engineers, roofers, builders, electricians, plumbers etc). Formerly courted by the newspaper (for several years The Sun ran a vox populi White Van Man column) the White Van sector appears to be increasingly marginalised as News International seeks to reinvent The Sun to appeal to a younger and more female audience.
The decision by The Sun to support Labour may be an attempt to position itself as relevant to a new readership rather than a true reflection of what the core group of White Van Man is really thinking. In that respect, the influential White Van constituency may be up for grabs.